Prof. Andrzej NOWAK: Imperiophobia from a different perspective

Imperiophobia from a different perspective

Photo of Prof. Andrzej NOWAK

Prof. Andrzej NOWAK

Historian, Sovietologist and member of the National Development Council. Lecturer at the Jagiellonian University. Full Professor at the Institute of History of the Polish Academy of Sciences. Winner of the Lech Kaczyński Award, Chevalier of the Order of the White Eagle.

Ryc.Fabien Clairefond

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Perhaps, instead of passing over in silence the Spanish contribution to shaping the image of Russia as a threat to Europe, it might be a good idea to explore the causes of that image?

.I have studied the history of Russia and Eastern Europe for 40 years. The place where I teach history – the Jagiellonian University in Kraków – is exactly where Nicolaus Copernicus studied 531 years ago. While this does not make me a discoverer, it does define the specific perspective from which I view the book by María Elvira Roca Barea. Her captivating debunking of Spain’s black legend has finally reached the eastern-European “periphery of Europe”… and left us surprised by the “rosy legend of Russia” that the author added to her reflections.

I do not know whether the renowned researcher has studied Russian literature and history in the original, but there is no denying she knows and appreciates the Spanish cultural tradition like few others do. So I was astonished to read her categorical statement that “until the 1917 revolution there was little talk of Russia in Spain” and that the first mention of Russia’s image in the country was made during Pyotr Potemkin’s diplomatic mission in 1681. Having read her book on “fracasology”, I know how proud Prof. Roca Barea is of Lope de Vega, and very rightly so. But then why did she forget that it was precisely the founder of the Spanish national theatre who in 1613 wrote the first brilliant literary work that acquainted his compatriots with Russia? After all, the very title of this excellent comedy – El Gran Duque de Moscovia y emperador perseguido – seems at first sight to be well suited for a book whose intention is to counter the black legend surrounding the Spanish and Russian empires: there you have it, a “persecuted emperor” in Moscow!

However, upon a closer reading of de Vega’s comedy, it becomes clear that the “emperor” is False Dmitry (Dmitri el Falso), and the persecution is carried out by his own barbaric people. He is supported by the Renaissance Polish court, the freedom-loving Polish nobility and its virtuous Catholic king (Sigismund III). They help Dmitry regain the throne so that he can “civilise” cruel Russia that was despotically ruled first by Ivan the Terrible and then Boris Godunov. This is the story Lope de Vega tells us. His comedy actually confirms all the crucial elements of what Prof. Roca Barea calls the “black legend” of Russia.

It is also strange that, while she cites various rather lesser-known works of 19th-century Anglo-Saxon literature presenting a critical view of Russia and its political practice, she leaves out completely what was perhaps the most resounding European “indictment” made against Russia in the middle of that century by a Spaniard, Juan Donoso Cortés, marqués de Valdegamas. His speech before the Spanish Cortes delivered on 30 January 1850 and then reprinted many times throughout Europe and his essay On Catholicism, Liberalism and Socialism (1851) are not only the “bible of conservatism”, but also the strongest warning against the dangers posed to Europe by Russia. “Revolution, having achieved social decomposition in Europe, will order the dissolution of standing armies; socialism, having robbed the owners, will extinguish patriotism,” wrote Donoso Cortés. This was when imperial Russia would enter the scene to conquer a militarily and morally disarmed West and subject it to inhuman despotism without firing a single shot…

Perhaps, instead of passing over in silence the Spanish contribution to shaping the image of Russia as a threat to Europe, it might be a good idea to explore the causes of that image? Contrary to what the author of Imperiophobia might think, it was not born out of the scheming of anti-Russian propagandists during the French Enlightenment. The image is older, originating in the realities of Russia itself (or Moscow in the 16th and 17th centuries) and the impact of its aggression against its immediate neighbours. Prof. Roca Barea pays no attention to Russia as such, nor to the fact that it had (and still has) neighbours other than Germany. She paints any criticism of Russia as an invention of western Europeans and a typical manifestation of their cultural arrogance (especially Anglo-Saxon, French and German). But is it not a sign of arrogance to be disregarding what Russians historically thought, and think now, of themselves and their relations with that part of the world that we refer to today as the West. The author of Imperiophobia brings up the idea of Moscow as the Third Rome with the sole purpose of pointing out Russia’s claim (which her text suggests is quite legitimate) to be the successor of Byzantium, the “second Rome” that fell in 1453. At the same time, she makes no mention whatsoever of some aspects of that idea that are of absolutely crucial importance both for the idea itself and for Russian sense of identity, at least from the beginning of the 18th century. What I mean here is an attitude that is anti-Latin, anti-Catholic and, finally, anti-Western. Moscow identifies itself first and foremost through Eastern Orthodoxy (Byzantium) whose mortal enemy is the Catholic world (Papal Rome and all Catholic countries, which means all of Central and Western Europe until the 16th century). Consequently, the author’s assertion that “Russia has always respected Western Europe” is simply not true. 

Moscow, a new political centre of Orthodox Ruthenia, grew under the 240-year-long rule of the Mongols, the so-called Great Horde. The author does not say a single word about this “episode” that lasted from 1240 to 1480. However, its significance cannot be dismissed with jokes about the saying “scratch a Russian and you’ll find a Tartar”. Quite simply, the Mongol rule deepened the isolation of a great part of Ruthenia (and principally Moscow) from Europe, strengthening Russia’s need to oppose the Old Continent. That need was and is felt by Russians themselves and not only by European “Russophobes”. It is worth mentioning that in the biggest poll for Russia’s national hero (held by “Imia Rossiia” in 2007, with 50 million Russians casting their votes) the undisputed winner was Alexander Nevsky, a Medieval symbol of collaboration with the Mongols and the perennial standoff between Moscow/Russia and the West. Tellingly, Stalin came third. Let me reiterate: until the end of the 17th century Russia voluntarily isolated itself from the “Latin” West. This has had far-reaching cultural consequences that are not the “fault” of Russophobia, but part of Russia’s reality.

When I took the great Russian poet Joseph Brodsky on a tour of the Renaissance castle in Kraków in 1990, the Nobel Prize laureate for literature sighed with both admiration and regret, saying: “This is precisely the thing we Russians have never had and will never have – the Renaissance.” Just think about the impact the period had on the European culture… or about the importance of universities and print. The first university in Russia was not founded until 1755. Compare this to the first universities founded in the Bohemia (1348), Poland (1364), the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth after the Union of 1385 (Vilnius 1579, Kiev 1658 and Lviv 1661), or the Estonian Tallinn (1632). Practically until the second half of the 17th century, Moscow prohibited print as the “invention of the devil” whereas in Poland, among other countries, print was so widespread from the end of the 15th century that one Estanislao Polono moved his printing workshop to Seville in 1490…

I am mentioning these locations on the political and cultural map to highlight the important difference in the attitude to Europe between Russia and its western neighbours whom Prof. Roca Barea ignores and who were engulfed by Russia’s military expansion between the early 18th and mid 20th centuries. We should remember that it was precisely from the moment when the Russia of Peter I (1689–1725) opened itself to Europe that the country began to successfully expand westwards, shifting its borders onto the whole of today’s Estonia (1721), Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus and much of Ukraine (1772-1795 – in the three consecutive partitions of the Commonwealth, Russia seized territory equivalent to that of Spain), much of today’s Poland (1815), Finland and Moldova (1809, 1812), and Georgia (1783, 1801). In the second half of the 19th century, Russia also conquered the entire Central Asia, exterminating whole tribes with an efficacy that was on a par with what the Anglo-Saxons did to the Indians in America. It brutally suppressed any attempts to resist its domination and efforts to impose Russian language, culture and alphabet. For example, the Russian authorities sent more than 40,000 people to forced labour in 1863 following just one of the many Polish uprisings against Tsarist rule. The idea of pan-Slavism, that is the rule of Russia over other Slavic nations (which Prof. Roca Barea seems to accept without much reflection) was implemented fully only by Stalin – first by means of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939 and then through the Red Army’s raid in 1944-1945 which enabled the Moscow-run empire to control the Czechs, Slovaks, Bulgarians, Poles and even non-Slavic Hungarians. This is not a “black legend”. It is an important part of reality that Prof. Roca Barea seems blind to. All she sees are the omnipresent symptoms of Russophobia “manufactured” by the French, German and Anglo-Saxons rather than potential reasons behind the genuine fear of Russian imperialist expansion and its consequences. 

.Is that fear but a delusion? I would gladly discuss this in more detail with the eminent Malaga-born author.

Andrzej Nowak

This content is protected by copyright. Any further distribution without the authors permission is forbidden. 31/10/2022